Assuming History's a Good Guide, Trump's Going to Win

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Allan J. Lichtman teaches history at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a regular political analyst for CNN Headline News and also provides political commentary for every other network and cable channel. He is the author of White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. The latest edition of his book, Predicting the Next President: The Keys to the White House, was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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Related Link Who Will Win? Hillary Clinton By Ronald Feinman

The Keys to the White House, is a historically based system for predicting the results of American presidential elections. I developed the model in 1981 in collaboration with Vladimir Keilis-Borok, one of the world’s leading mathematicians. We based our model on studying all American presidential elections from 1860 to 1980, guided by the theory that presidential elections are primarily referenda on the performance of the party holding the White House.  Using this model, I predict Donald Trump will win the presidency.  But this prediction comes with an asterisk, as I’ll get to in a moment.

The Keys to the White House are 13 true/false questions, with an answer of true favoring reelection of the party holding the White House. When the answers to five or fewer of these questions are false, the incumbent party wins. When six or more are false, the challenging party wins. The Keys are evaluated term-by-term for the White House party. As a national system, the Keys predict the national popular vote, but only once in 125 years has the popular vote diverged from the Electoral College vote – in the disputed election of 2000. (A list of the 13 Keys appears at the bottom of this article.)

Since its development, the model has successfully predicted the results in all eight American presidential elections from 1984 to 2012, often in contradiction to the polls or years in advance of the election. In 1988, when George H. W. Bush was trailing Michael Dukakis by some 18 points in the polls, the Keys predicted Bush’s victory. In 2005 the Keys predicted the election of a Democrat in 2008 and in 2010 the Keys predicted President Obama’s reelection.

This year’s election has been the most difficult of all contests to predict accurately. The Keys are closely divided and the nomination of Donald Trump poses a unique forecasting challenge.

By a narrow margin, a straight call on the Keys predicts the defeat of the incumbent Democrats in November. Six 6 keys are currently turned against the Democrats, just enough to predict their defeat:

● The party’s losses in the 2014 midterm elections have cost it Mandate Key 1.

● The inability of President Obama to seek a third term forfeits Incumbency Key 3.

● The likelihood that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson will reach the 5 percent threshold for a significant third-party campaign topples Third Party Key 4. The rule of thumb for this key is to take the third-party’s candidate highest polling numbers and cut them in half, to account for the “wasted vote theory” that deters voters when the final decision comes to vote for a candidate who cannot win election.

● The lack of a major domestic policy achievement in Obama’s second term, comparable to the Affordable Care Act of his first term, costs his Democrats Policy Change Key 7.

● The lack of any well-recognized second-term foreign policy triumph comparable to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden forfeits Foreign/Military Success Key 11.

● Hillary Clinton clearly lacks the charisma of Franklin D. Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, which topples Incumbent Charisma/National Hero Key 12.

The following six keys favor the incumbent Democrats.

● The United States has not fallen into a double-dip recession, but remains in a slow recovery, retaining for Democrats Short-Term Economy Key 5.

● Although the recovery is slow, economic growth in Obama’s second term exceeds that of the previous two terms, which spanned the recession of 2008-2009, securing Long-Term Economy Key 6.

● By a very narrow margin the Democrats retain Social Unrest Key 7. There have been sporadic outbreaks of violent protests against police shootings of African American men, but not the sustained unrest of the 1960s or the Reconstruction period.

● The lack of a significant scandal involving President Obama keeps in line Scandal Key 8.

● Despite foreign policy challenges, the Obama administration has not suffered a major foreign policy or military failure, comparable to losing the Vietnam War, keeping Foreign/Military Failure Key 10 in line.

● Republican challenger Donald Trump appeals to a segment of the electorate, but lacks the broad appeal of Ronald Reagan and has the highest negative ratings of any presidential candidate in history. This keeps Democrats from losing the Challenger Charisma/Hero Key 13.

The following key is undetermined:

Incumbent Party Contest Key 2 is a difficult call this year. With about 40 percent of delegate votes, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont amassed sufficient support to exceed the usual one-third criterion for a contested nomination within the party holding the White House. However, unlike in past nomination struggles that turned Key 2, he did not take his candidacy to the party convention, but endorsed Hillary Clinton prior to this gathering. It is also possible that the specter of a Trump victory has united Democrats regardless of the Sanders/Clinton contest.

The asterisk to this prediction derives from the precedent shattering Trump candidacy. Although the Keys predict a generic Republican victory, Donald Trump is hardly a generic candidate. Trump may become the first candidate to break an historical pattern that has held since 1860 and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Trump does not have the record of public service that other candidates have possessed, and has made a career of enriching himself at other’s expense as evidenced by his many bankruptcies and the machinations of Trump “University,” the Trump Institute, and the Trump Foundation.

Trump has shown an admiration for ruthless dictators, notably Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and has suggested that he might not defend all of our NATO allies against Russian aggression. Scores of Republican foreign policy experts have denounced his views and announced that they will not vote for him.

He is the only candidate in decades to refuse to release his tax returns and may well have foreign financial entanglements with implications for our national security.

He is the only candidate to undermine the integrity of our democratic process by claiming that if he lost in November it would be the result of a “rigged” election. There has been a notable undercurrent of violence in his campaign themes and rallies, and he has made comments that conjure up the specter of violence against his political opponent.

His candidacy is cheered on by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups in America.

Most politicians have bent or stretched the truth on occasion. However, organizations that objectively check the accuracy of the statements of political candidates have shown that Trump is uniquely a serial fabricator. He simply makes up facts as he proceeds through the campaign. To cite just a few examples: that he was against starting a war against Iraq, that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the 9/11 attacks, that he received a letter from the NFL complaining about the presidential debate schedule, that debate moderator Lester Holt of NBC will be unfair to him because Holt is a Democrats (Holt is a registered Republican).

He has suggested starting a war in the Persian Gulf, saying that if Iranians come too close to our warships and make obscene gestures their vessels will be shot out of the water."

He has explicitly invited Russia – a hostile foreign power – to meddle in our elections, saying "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing.” Hacking into an email server is also a federal crime under the Stored Communications Act.

When Trump finally admitted that President Obama was born in the United States after many years of promoting the “birther” falsehood, he added two new lies: that Hillary Clinton began the birther controversy and was “all in” on it and that he had simply “finished” the matter. In fact, Trump kept alive the birther myth well after Obama became the first American president to release his long-form birth certificate.

This is the kind of baggage that could sink the Trump candidacy, despite the narrowly favorable verdict of the Keys for a victory for a generic Republican candidate in 2016.

It is also possible that one or more keys may swing back into the Democratic column before the November election. The Johnson candidacy may fade as the election approaches, reducing his vote below the 5 percent threshold. It is also possible that the Obama administration could achieve a foreign/military success by driving ISIS out of the key city Iraqi city of Mosul before the election and claim that it has cleared Iraq of this menace.

However, the Social Unrest Key could yet turn against the incumbent Democrats. This could happen if violence becomes more prevalent across the nation as we approach the November election.

Perhaps the most critical lesson of the Keys for 2016 is that either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton could be elected president in this extraordinary year. Therefore, no one should be complacent about the outcome. The stakes in this contest are very high. Perhaps never before have two candidates staked out such starkly different leadership styles and responses to the challenges facing our nation. The ultimate outcome may well depend on the turnout of voters and people’s realization that casting a “protest” vote for a third party will elect Donald Trump. There are no moral victories in elections; either Clinton or Trump will be our next president. History teaches that nations decline because of the apathy, not the actions, of good people.  


The 13 Keys

1     Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.

2     Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.

3     Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.

4     Third party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.

5     Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

6     Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

7     Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

8     Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

9     Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

10    Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

11    Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

12    Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

13    Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.





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